Postcards From the Edge

Peace and quiet, great fishing, tax-free land. Welcome to the Everglades, where "hunt camps" are enjoying a new lease on life.

On most maps of South Florida, civilization simply ends somewhere out west. In Broward County the demarcation line is I-75 in the south and the Sawgrass Expressway in the north. In southern Palm Beach County, State Road 7 is pretty much the end, though some development straggles west of the line. These obviously man-made boundaries leave the impression that there's nothing farther west but a vast, uninhabited expanse of the Everglades.

But what appears on maps as a blank is in fact the refuge of a decades-old yet little-known remnant of Old Florida. Out there, hiding in plain sight, are elegant houses and tumbledown shacks, single cabins and motel-like complexes, constructed about as far from anywhere as the builders could get. Which is the whole point.

They're called "hunt camps." While the name alludes to the origin of these structures, it doesn't explain their continued existence. In many parts of the Everglades, the hunting just isn't that good anymore, and fewer people are doing it as South Florida rushes headlong into total suburbanization. Nowadays the camps are more likely to see use as swamp party pads, places to kick back on the weekend with a barbecue and a cooler full of beer.

The camps have been tolerated, if never officially blessed, by the agencies that own the land upon which they squat. Their existence has always been tenuous. The state Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission wanted to do away with them 40 years ago. Some environmentalists think the camps and the vehicles used to access them are detrimental to the Everglades.

Nevertheless Big Brother never could decide what, if anything, to do about them. That indecision sent a clear signal: Build away. Today there are about 65 camps in Water Conservation Areas 2 and 3, located in Broward and Palm Beach counties, and as many as 150 more on the Miccosukee Indian Reservation and in the Big Cypress National Preserve. The status of camps on Miccosukee land and federal land in Big Cypress are not in question. But camps in the water conservation areas are squatting on public lands owned either by the South Florida Water Management District or the state itself.

State legislators recently decided, however, that the camps can stay. Beginning January 1, 2000, each will be eligible for a 20-year lease, which is a story in itself, amended as it was to a major environmental bill during the 11th hour of the last state legislative session. The politicking involved was so slick it would impress a sugar lobbyist. In fact, camp owners have a sugar lobbyist to thank for their new leases on life.

And for the first time in decades, they know where they stand. Now that they're in a neighborly mood, it's a good time to poke around the Everglades, maybe knock on a few doors and dispel the stereotypes about the kind of people who hang out in the swamps for nothing more than a little R and R.

Jim Eason's four-wheel-drive Chevy pickup is parked by the water at a boat ramp in Conservation Area 2, directly west of Boca Raton. Eason is a lanky, 63-year-old, affable Alabama native who's been hunting, fishing, and kicking around in the Everglades for 35 years. By day he owns an electrical contracting company in West Palm Beach.

This afternoon he's launching his airboat for an overnight run to his camp. The boat is a green Air Gator powered by an air-cooled, six-cylinder, 290-horsepower Continental airplane engine which, like most airboat engines, runs mufflerless. Which makes it deafeningly, painfully loud. But Eason is a consummate nice guy. He hands over his only pair of ear protectors to a passenger. "My hearing's no good anyway," he says with a smile.

It's been raining like biblical times lately, and the bruised-looking clouds are threatening to open up again. The rain is needed, as Conservation Area 2 was bone dry until mid June. The recent rains have put at least a few inches of water on the airboat trails, and the airboaters are itching to get back out there.

"Watch it getting on and off," Eason says in his Alabama drawl, as he welcomes a passenger aboard. "Airboats get slicky."

His camp is five miles north of the landing, about a 20-minute ride in the airboat. Weeds 12 feet tall that shot up during the dry spell are threatening to block the trail in places, as are thick patches of water hyacinth interspersed with floating mud clots. To the untrained eye, it often looks as if there is no trail at all. But Eason knows where he's going. He just gives the boat a little more gas on the rough spots and glides right through.

Despite the din airboats are surprisingly soothing. The noise of a propeller whirling a foot behind your head precludes mindless chatter, leaving passengers with nothing to do but ponder the passing scenery. Not far from the dock, the boat startles a purple gallinule, a small bird prized by birdwatchers for colors that range from pale blue on its forehead to a greenish bronze on its back. The bird takes wing in the same direction as the boat and at the same speed, so for a few moments it appears to hover in midair.

Eason guides the boat through narrow trails, which lead to wide sloughs, which lead back to narrow trails. The area is crisscrossed with paths, some divided by a hedgerow of sawgrass, like a median between lanes, others just narrow enough for one boat to squeak through. Like any cautious driver, Eason slows at the intersections, craning his head both ways to make sure there's no oncoming traffic. The prospect of a collision out here is very real and very terrifying, given the churning props. All the boaters use the same system of trails, which is essentially a grid of watery streets, without the benefit of traffic control or speed limits.

A few minutes later, Eason pulls up to his camp, which can best be described as "rustic." Like all camps in Conservation Area 2, his place sits on stilts, about five feet above the water. Camps in other parts of the Everglades are built at ground level on tree islands, which stand a foot or two higher than the water level. In Conservation Area 2, the water's almost always high, unless the region is unusually dry, and there's not a tree island in sight.

Eason's camp has a wide, shaded porch with a commanding view to the east that takes in the Sawgrass Expressway only a mile or so distant. The close proximity to civilization is a bit jarring out here; the hum of traffic from the freeway competes with the croaking frogs and grunting gators. "That's the growth of South Florida for you," notes Eason.

The camp comprises four buildings -- the main "house," a storage shed, a bathroom, and the "honeymoon suite" -- connected by a raised walkway. Inside the buildings, walls are bare studs and plywood, and the windows are screened but glassless. The kitchen in the main house features a sink that drains into a bucket, a microwave, and a gas stove. Two yellow light bulbs hanging from an electrical cord strung along the ceiling provide the light, and a portable generator supplies the power. The whole place is painted light green and has a tidy yet weather-beaten appearance. Eason owns it with a partner.

He unloads supplies for the weekend but doesn't linger. It's late, the light's fading, and there are two dozen camps to visit. First stop on the tour will be a place regarded as the swankiest little pad in the swamp, a four-bedroom affair locals refer to as "the Taj Mahal."

Like many rivers, the River of Grass is dotted with islands. Thousands of them. In aerial or satellite images, the islands are shaped like scraggly teardrops, oriented with their fat ends to the northwest and their tails to the southeast. Some are big enough to have names: Temperature Change Head, Custard Apple Hammock, Nuthouse Head, Amazing Grace Island, Draft Dodge Island, Airplane Head. Most, however, are just pocks on the map.

The islands have a rich history. For centuries they've provided dry land for trees to take root and cover for wildlife. Indians who lived in the Everglades built homes and grew food on the islands. The first white people to trek through the Everglades, in the early 1800s, camped on them. In 1918 Naples resident Ed Frank combined parts from a Model T Ford and the bucket seat of a World War I airplane and created what is believed to be the first swamp buggy. The invention allowed people to motor through the swamps and haul enough construction materials into the boonies to build camps. Back then game such as deer, hogs, and turkeys were abundant, and the land didn't seem to belong to anyone in particular. Sportsmen staked their claims in the Everglades, clearing small patches of land on the islands and throwing up rudimentary shacks that would serve as base camps for their hunting forays. The hunt camp was born.

By the late '50s, the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission counted about 20 camps in Conservation Areas 2 and 3. In less than a year's time, the number doubled. Camps were also appearing in areas to the west that would later become the Miccosukee Indian Reservation and the Big Cypress National Preserve. Most were on land owned by the state or the Flood Control District, the agency today known as the South Florida Water Management District. Maybe 10 percent of the camps were on private land.

In 1959, representatives from the Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission and the Florida State Board of Health took a tour of the camps. They didn't like what they saw. "Subsequently [the board of health has] stated that it is contrary to the Sanitary Code of the State of Florida, by reasons of water supply, sewage, and garbage disposal factors, to condone present camper operations and trends," commission biologist Harold E. Wallace wrote in a memo in 1959. Because meeting sanitation requirements would cost too much money, Wallace recommended removing the camps. One method bandied about was to have the sheriff's department in each county bordering the Everglades tell the squatters to tear down the camps and move out. "The [Flood Control District] attorney suggests a test case rather than blanket legal notification, such theory being that a successful case would result in mass voluntary exodus, thus saving time, trouble, and expense," wrote Wallace.

Not so fast, said then-attorney general Richard Ervin. The commission doesn't hold title to the land, so it has no right to kick the campers out, Ervin opined in a 1959 letter. Only the agencies that owned the land could do that. But the state never showed any inclination to boot the squatters. While the Flood Control District toyed with the idea and even set up a permitting system to keep track of the camps, the agency never took action either.

Fred Davis, director of land stewardship for the water management district, says the continued existence of the camps speaks to the ambivalence of his agency. The water management district, notes Davis, can prohibit any activity that's contrary to their mission of storing and moving water through conservation areas. "Based on the fact that there are 65 camps out there, we have either deemed that they don't interfere, or we have been unable to prevent or remove the camps," says Davis. "It's partially that we haven't tried, and it's partially because of the influence of some of the folks who are in those camps."

After decades of existing in a legal gray area, the camps are now legit thanks to such influence. A camp owner named Jim Beaty recently had a run-in with the Department of Environmental Protection over his place in Conservation Area 2. Beaty had a friend by the name of Billy Bowman, a politically connected Palm Beach County rancher, who knew a sugar lobbyist by the name of David Goodlett. Neither Beaty nor Bowman returned calls for this story, and Goodlett says he never knew exactly why Beaty ran afoul of the DEP, which also wouldn't return calls on this issue. "I only know that there was a problem going on and there was some chance he would have to vacate," says Goodlett.

Goodlett was sympathetic to the cause. He grew up in Belle Glade and spent much of his childhood in a backcountry "house" his father built on Captiva Island. "My favorite time in my life was the time I spent on my stilt house with my father," he says. "There was a warm and fuzzy feeling I had for folks who have these properties."

Sugar lobbying has taught Goodlett a thing or two about how to get things done in Tallahassee. In the waning days of the legislative session this past spring, he searched for a way to help Bowman by helping Beaty. He discovered that Florida Forever, the legislation aimed at buying and preserving land for public use, contained language to protect "stilt houses" built over public waters in Charlotte Harbor and other "tidal" areas around the state. Goodlett's first thought was simply to broaden the language of the legislation to include "non-tidal" areas, thus covering the Everglades camps. He worked with the DEP to do just that, but the changes didn't fly with environmentalists. David Gluckman, a Tallahassee lobbyist with the Florida Wildlife Federation, says the addition would have legalized every illegal dock, dike, and fence built on state-owned wetlands. "That is something we wouldn't support," he adds.

So Goodlett narrowed the language to specify structures built in water conservation areas, which suited the environmental faction. "I checked around and discovered there weren't a lot of folks all that concerned about the structures in the water conservation areas," says Gluckman, noting that no one had ever brought up the issue with him before. "I have never heard any environmental folks express any concern about [the camps]."

The amendment passed without discussion, and Florida Forever was signed into law by Gov. Jeb Bush on June 7.

Now hunt camps are eligible for 20-year leases from the DEP or the South Florida Water Management District, depending on who owns the land on which the camps squat. The catch is that camp owners -- whose camps don't have addresses and who therefore haven't been officially informed about the leases -- must identify themselves to the water management district by January 1, 2000. It will then be up to the water management district to determine on whose land the camps are located.

It's the end of an era. No new camp can be built, and the owners of existing camps will have to comply with the terms of the lease. No one knows exactly what those terms are, as the DEP has yet to come up with specifics such as cost, sanitation, and building-code compliance (which it must do by January 1). What is certain is that the era of wide-open Everglades building has passed.

"If [camp owners] don't come in, they will not be issued a lease," says Davis. "And then they will be removed, I imagine. That's the other side of the sword."

Eason throttles back the big Continental engine and glides around Jim Willard's camp until Willard notices and waves from his kitchen window. Then he cuts the engine and docks. "You want to take a tour?" asks Willard.

Indeed.
There's no granite dome and not a minaret in sight, but it's not hard to see why the locals call Willard's place "the Taj Mahal." The main building has the look and feel of a hunting lodge, with wood ceilings, a fireplace, and a big comfy couch. Two TVs hang on brackets on either side of the fireplace, fed by the big satellite dish outside. Adjoining the living room is a kitchen complete with dishwasher, refrigerator, sink, and stove. Sliding glass doors open onto the wraparound deck, which leads to the bunkhouse, a structure distinguished by more fine woodwork. The place befits a man like Willard, who owns his own construction company. "We hand-built those bunks," he notes with pride. "Ain't nothing in this place store-bought." Each bunk sleeps two, and the place has four other bedrooms, so a party of 10 to 12 people wouldn't be a squeeze.

Beyond the bunkhouse is a separate bathroom complete with toilet and shower, and behind that is the shed, where a 30-kilowatt diesel generator hums along, supplying the juice. Dual air conditioners keep everything nice and cool.

In the event that guests choose to arrive by air -- and important, politically connected guests do every year -- Willard has them covered. Twenty yards to the north of the main building is the helicopter pad. "We've had a lot of Washington people out here," he says.

The camp is designed to be as maintenance-free as possible, and it's built to last. Willard's plan is to have it handed down from generation to generation. "This is something my grandkids and their kids will be able to enjoy," he says. "It will be left to them."

Back on the boat, Eason slows down for a peek at an undistinguished-looking camp known as "Fountain Blue," then passes a few places the names of which are lost in the din of the engine. At "Our Camp" he cuts the throttle and drifts in. The camp is obscured by tall weeds. But three airboats are parked at the dock out front, so somebody's home. Sure enough the occupants come trudging down the dock, as if to reproach Eason for intruding on their weekend. Instead, they offer an invitation. "You guys hungry?" one of them asks. "We got some steaks. Filet mignon. We can't eat it all."

There's an ethos in the swamps that's hard for a city dweller to comprehend. Everybody waves at passing airboats. Approaching other people's dwellings is OK, even encouraged. Neighbors trust one another. By tradition the camps are left open, a gesture that harks back to the days before CB radios and cell phones. Back then, if your airboat or swamp buggy broke down, it could be a couple days before someone happened by. In the meantime you were welcome to take refuge at the nearest camp, as long as you didn't steal or make a mess.

But hang out long enough and you'll discover the camp owners are also sensitive, even a bit nervous, as if they're getting away with something they'd rather not see in print.

The heretofore dicey relationship between camp owners and state officials goes a long way toward explaining this skittishness. But the media hasn't served them well either. A recent article in the St. Petersburg Times about the lease deal, for example, stressed that the camps are "illegal." They're not, as no law has ever been passed banning them. It's more accurate to say, as did one water management district official, the camps are "alegal."

Generally, coverage of people who recreate in the Everglades has been skewed, says Barbara Powell of the Everglades Coordinating Council, an umbrella group made up of South Florida sportsmen's clubs. "We call it 'getting gutshot.'" The council represents clubs for airboat, hunting, and track-vehicle enthusiasts, many of whom are also hunt-camp owners. Powell politely declined to cooperate for this story based on the council's past experiences with reporters, who she feels tend to portray her constituents as rednecks out to terrorize wildlife and tear up vegetation. "It's been our experience that the press has not treated us kindly," says Powell. "We have just been stabbed in the back so many times by reporters who say they want to be balanced."

Camp owners have also taken heat on environmental issues. Most camps are too primitive to have septic tanks, holding tanks, or chemical toilets, so waste is flushed right into the swamp. This is something of an abstract issue, as no agency has studied whether disposing of waste in this manner is a problem. Without such data biologists are not willing to say if the crude form of sanitation is harmful. "I just don't know in measurable terms what the concerns are," admits Steve Coughlin, a wildlife biologist with the state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission.

A thornier issue is the impact the camps in Conservation Area 3 have on tree islands, which provide wildlife with vital habitats. Again the arguments are anecdotal. No one has hard data. "One of the things that is always a concern is that the tree islands are a pretty limited resource," says Coughlin. "These camps built on the islands do have the potential to affect wildlife by taking up habitat. They have all damaged the islands to some extent."

Because the Everglades is largely inaccessible by road, camp owners use off-road vehicles (ORVs) to get to their places, and the presence of ORVs has sparked a big brouhaha. One environmental group has for years threatened to sue the federal government over the use of ORVs in the Big Cypress National Preserve, west of Conservation Area 3. "[ORVs] are causing serious damage, especially when the water conditions are low," says Brian Scherf of the Florida Biodiversity Project. The Sierra Club has also complained about the overuse of airboats in Big Cypress. The club's main beef is the tour operators who, members say, run the same trails over and over, scaring wildlife and destroying habitat. "Numerous endangered and threatened species in the region are impacted by the noise, speed, and backwash of airboats," writes Rod Tirrell, co-chairman of the Florida Sierra Club, in a letter to Big Cypress superintendent Wallace Hibbard. "Airboats are known to impact breeding and migration habits of manatees. We condemn splashy 'spinouts' and high speed 'thrill' activity in blind corners as inappropriate in a National Preserve."

Given these problems it would be easy to make a case for evicting squatters and banning ORVs. But that would be shortsighted, according to one expert, who points out that, aside from the camp owners, no other group of people knows the Everglades region inside out. "You could [claim]... that this is public land and they shouldn't be out there," says Chris McVoy, a research scientist with the water management district. "But you have to look at the benefits. Someone sitting in Lake Worth doesn't know what's going on out there. All they can do is read the [water level] gauges."

McVoy, who is surveying the history of the Everglades, describes himself as a "suburban liberal environmentalist" who has come to appreciate the value of firsthand information gleaned from hanging out in the 'Glades. "These people add other points of observation," he says. "It's informal and not rigorous, but they aren't dummies, and they like the outdoors."

In fact many camp owners consider themselves stewards of the environment. They share their knowledge and observations with state agencies, keep track of how water levels affect wildlife, work to keep exotic species like melaleuca and Brazilian pepper in check, and try to spare tree islands the effects of wildfires by running circles around them in buggies or airboats to create fire breaks. "We really are the eyes and ears of the Everglades," says Al Bryan, president of the Dade County Full Track Conservation Club. "We are not just a bunch of shoot-everything-that-moves beer drinkers."

By 8 p.m. Eason is back at the landing to pick up his wife, Joy, and some friends who plan to spend the night at camp. But Joy's running late. "I can't stand it when people are late," he says. "And she's always late."

The clouds are no longer threatening rain. Instead the sunset is a panoply of pink rays shooting up from the western horizon, coloring the underside of the puffy white clouds.

Three airboats make their way back to the landing after dark, looking like bizarre swamp apparitions, huge yet without any identifiable shape, against the black night. After dark, airboat drivers wear hardhats with spotlights mounted on the front to see the trails. As the boats dock, the spotlights illuminate bugs hovering so thick the cumulative effect resembles falling snow.

Killing time Eason relates the lineage of his own camp. It was built in the '60s by a guy named Ernie Palmer, who later sold most of it to James Stratton. Eason and a partner bought majority shares in the place from Stratton about 15 years ago. That's typical of the way camps change hands: People get partners, sell shares, and pass on shares. The transactions are legal -- they come with a bill of sale -- but they're not like other real-estate sales. No deed is involved. Buyers get a piece of the structure itself and have to share in the maintenance.

Joy arrives at about 9 p.m., and she doesn't seem too happy. "I shoulda stayed home; I've got so damn much work to do," she grumbles as she gets on the boat.

Eason dons his helmet, switches on the light, starts the airboat, and takes off through the dark. The night air is cool and sticky, and the trail looks even narrower in Eason's beam than it did during the day. Bugs bounce off passengers' faces, and it's quickly apparent this is no time to yawn.

The remainder of the evening is devoted to a steak dinner cooked on the barbecue and a couple hours' worth of swamp philosophizing. Joy's mood improves as she talks about family time spent camping in the Everglades. "My youngest son [who's 27] has been coming out here since he was about a year old," she says. The Easons used to own a track -- a motorized swamp vehicle that runs on tanklike treads -- and the baby found the noise and clamor of the machine soothing. "He'd be fussing and we'd get him on the track, and he would go sound asleep. You'd think an old track going bumpity-bump would keep him awake, but he loved it."

At dawn the next day, the only sounds are crickets in the swamp and heavy, scratchy footsteps on the roof of the camp, which turn out to be three large buzzards preparing for a day of scavenging. An airboat at a nearby camp cranks and fires just before 7 a.m., shredding the otherwise quiet morning with the angry sound of a buzzing prop.

After breakfast Eason starts up the Air Gator for a tour of the far western reaches of Conservation Area 2, where just a few camps are located. The drone of the big Continental drowns conversation as Eason skims along the narrow trails. To the north is an unbroken line of sawgrass, interrupted here and there by scrawny wax myrtle trees in the foreground and melaleuca stands in the distance, where the horizon meets the cobalt blue sky. To the south is more of the same: a barren-looking landscape miles from civilization. Which is the whole point.

Contact Bob Whitby at his e-mail address:
Bob_Whitby@newtimesbpb.com

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